Woods relaxed, upbeat heading into Phoenix Open


SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – If you're the world's most famous athlete and inherently image-conscious and were last seen in public missing a front tooth and you've got to speak with the media – the same meddling media that for two decades has asked you every question from "Was that a 7-iron or 8-iron that you hit from 205 yards to the tucked pin?" to "What did you have for breakfast this morning?" – there might not be a better time to schedule this interview session than at nearly the same moment as Super Bowl Media Day, where just across town behemoth football players embarking on one of the world's biggest sporting events were about to be grilled over deflated balls.

Call it a brilliant coincidence or an astute conspiracy theory – after all, Tiger Woods doesn’t make a habit of playing Tuesday practice rounds at non-majors, let alone a pre-dawn Tuesday practice round that left him finishing up right before the New England Patriots were taking to their podiums in nearby Glendale – but Woods unquestionably repositioned himself in a spotlight that any other place, any other time, would have been firmly affixed to his pearly whites.

Oh, right – about those. Woods showed up at TPC Scottsdale with all previous toothless gaps filled in. Despite appeals from the masses on social media to leave it be - or at the very least, replace the missing chicklet with a gold substitute in the most (OK, only) gangsta move in professional golf history – he returned to the public eye with all chompers in proper working order.

He also offered an explanation of the incident after girlfriend Lindsey Vonn’s skiing victory in Italy that was equal parts believable and amusing.

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“Yeah, that didn't feel very good,” he said. “I had my mask on, so no one knew who I was; trying to blend in, because there is not a lot of brown dudes at ski races, OK? That was the whole idea of why I wore the mask, and then I came up above. I was looking down, and all the camera guys are below me on their knees or moving all around, trying to get a picture because she's hugging people, saying congratulations to the other racers as they are coming down. Dude with a video camera on his shoulder, right in front of me, kneeling, stood up and turned and caught me square on the mouth. He chipped that [tooth], cracked the other one. And so then, you know, I'm trying to keep this [mask] so the blood is not all over the place.”

Those conspiracy theories that Woods was ducking additional attention seemed to wilt in the brisk desert air, as he spent 12 minutes largely showing off that reworked smile during a series of relaxed, engaging answers prior to his first start on the 2015 calendar.

All of which is just as well, because even though the Scottsdale scene looks like the perfect backdrop for “Hangover 4,” it’s not the kind of place which takes kindly to embarrassment. Tiger won’t have that missing tooth to provoke catcalls from what’s expected to be more than a half-million spectators this week, and he believes he’s cured himself of the embarrassing chipping woes which plagued his last competitive performance eight weeks ago.

“I was caught between techniques, between my old release pattern and body movement when I was working with [former instructor] Sean [Foley] and then my new release pattern,” he explained. “We had to basically just hit thousands upon thousands upon thousands of chips and just get it out of there, and now it's better.”

That’s not the only thing that’s better. As if to only refute those conspiracy theories even more – you know, the ones questioning why he’d be grinding away with the PGA Tour’s great unwashed on a Tuesday morning of non-major tournament – the explanation comes in the form of his health. For years, he’s insisted that he needs “more reps,” yet he’s simultaneously played less and, more telling, practiced less, especially in the days leading up to tournament rounds, when his fellow competitors are putting the final touches on their preparation.

Even though it was just a nine-hole practice round followed by another range session, it should symbolize Woods’ commitment now that his body is healthy enough to allow him to prepare the way he needs.

Or as he put it, in an economical use of words that might say everything about not just his impending season, but the current of electricity which for so long has run through the game when he is competing at his very best: “It’s going to be a fun year.”